India’s Look East policy aims to help the giant nation develop economically and counter China, but involves grave moral compromises as seen in Burma dictator Than Shwe’s visit to the country.
As India sought a way out of post-Cold War economic stagnation, its “Look East “policy was a shot at finding its place in a globalising world – which was initially dominated by the US but later rebalanced by the dramatic rise of China and ensuing need for India to enhance its economic and diplomatic links with the growing Asian economies to its east.
The end of the Cold War was the nail in the coffin for India’s Non-Aligned Movement aspirations – for a third way between the US and now-defunct USSR. Without the two superpowers to play off against, the (self)deception that NAM was a viable alternative was finally blown away. For other NAM members, the end of the Cold War had a much bloodier impact, with 300,000 people killed during the six wars that wracked India’s fellow NAM leader, the former Yugoslavia.
Still, with a stagnant economy fuelling widespread and often raw poverty, India was a sickly Tiger, unlike the dynamic Big Cats in east and southeast Asia. Looking east offered not only new markets and trading partners, but models of economic growth and development for India as it emerged out of socialist autarky. Prof. Sandy Gordon teaches at Australian National University and is a founding editor of the South Asia Masala. In an email, he said that “The Asian tigers to India’s east were seen not only as role models for economic liberalisation, but also as markets and a new geopolitical sphere – one with which India was more comfortable at that time that it was with a policy of reaching out in unambiguous terms to the West.”
India’s economic growth continues to be impressive, with the International Monetary Fund now projecting 9.4 per cent growth for India in 2010, plotted to drop a bit to 8.4 per cent in 2011. Like elsewhere in Asia, India has rebounded quickly – compared with the West – from the global economic downturn that hit in 2008. India’s super-rich emerge to take their place alongside the financial elites elsewhere, and as the country’s middle class expands, vast numbers of people are being lifted out of poverty. The country is producing world-class multinational companies such as Wipro, Infosys, Tata and others. However vast poverty remains, according to a new ‘multidimensional poverty index’ developed at Oxford, and soon to be harnessed by the UN’s Human Development Report. This index numbers 410 million Indians in poverty, meaning there are more poor people in eight Indian states than in all 26 countries of sub-Saharan Africa.
To help these vast hundreds of millions climb the economic ladder, India will likely remain focused on boosting economic links with the Asia-Pacific region, as current forecasts and projections indicate that this part of the world will remain the most vibrant region in the global economy in the medium term. India is now part of the ASEAN regional forum, the East Asian Summit and ASEM, the Asia-Europe Meeting. The free trade agreement India signed with ASEAN on August 13 2009 has been described as the crowning glory of the Look East policy.
Amitendu Palit is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) at the National University of Singapore and previously worked at India’s Finance Ministry. He told me that the main success of Look East “is clearly economic”, with east and southeast Asia now key partners for India. However the FTA is much more limited than the deal ASEAN signed with China, and India-ASEAN trade is growing from a low base . While the FTA is a milestone, it needs work, as Amitendu Palit reminded. He emphasised further that “India needs to work with its Eastern neighbours for improving trade facilitation and enabling greater export of services.”
Going beyond economics, India has extensive defence dealings with Singapore, Australia and Japan and defence relationships with Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. In terms of India’s dealings with Burma, the rise of China, strategic and defence planning and India’s need to develop investment and trade links all coalesce.
As China rises, the US is lurching from accommodation to confrontation, rowing in behind ASEAN and allies such as South Korea where it can on issues like control of the South China Sea and on various military training exercises. India’s nuclear and strategic relationship with the US fits into this, with Washington perhaps hoping to build up India as a hedge against China’s rise, in an act of old-school balance-of-power politics. This has its limits, however, with the US also giving billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan, which India believes to be funding jihadists in Kashmir and behind terror attacks on the Indian parliament in 2001 and more recently in Indian cities. Given that China and Pakistan are long-standing allies, India naturally enough will seek its own arrangements elsewhere in Asia, and on its own terms, even if this means an amicable relationship with a Burmese regime that is allegedly-working with the same North Korea that helped Pakistan go nuclear over a decade ago.
The big picture is, that, despite India’s growth and dynamism, Chinese military spending is bigger, and has been for some time, meaning that India is falling further behind year by year, with China set to launch its first aircraft carrier in coming years, significantly boosting its ability to ‘project power’ into the Indian Ocean and beyond. India therefore sees itself as needing to engage with Burma to counter China, economically and strategically – even if it appears that New Delhi is lagging, according to K Yhome, Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a think-tank based in New Delhi. China’s new port and pipeline facility on Burma’s west coast will not only allow it pipe gas from the Shwe field into China, but also involves Beijing’s building of a terminal to allow it pipe oil and gas shipments from the Middle East and Africa into China, avoiding the need to send tankers through heavy traffic through the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea, where US naval power is likely to be dominant for a long time to come. Indian energy companies are investing in the Shwe field nonetheless, which is expected to bring almost US$1billion per annum in additional revenues for the Burmese regime, once it comes on stream.
Burma is a lynchpin – or ‘arrowhead’ – for the Look East policy as it is the land bridge between India and ASEAN, with the two countries sharing a porous 1640 km border across which rebel groups have crossed at will. Burma’s junta previously supported ethnic and leftist rebel militias in retaliation for India’s pro-democracy, pro- Aung San Suu Kyi stance up to 1993. In New Delhi yesterday Burmese junta chief Than Shwe held talks with India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, before they later signed agreements to combat the smuggling of arms, drugs and ammunition across their common frontier and cooperate in the fields of information, science and technology – where India and its formidable information technology sector promises a significant advancement for IT infrastructure and capabilities in Burma.
Than Shwe will also, presumably, acquire much-craved international legitimisation for the 2010 election, and it is notable that he was signing agreements with the world’s largest democracy almost simultaneously to US President Obama renewing American sanctions on the Burmese regime. Than Shwe’s four-day visit to India notably takes place just a few weeks after he hosted Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, and thereby reassures New Delhi that bilateral ties are important to the Burmese leadership.
For many concerned about repression inside Burma, it was deep and troubling irony to see the man who ordered Buddhist monks to be arrested, beaten and killed be feted at Bodh Gaya – the place where Buddha found enlightenment. This was compounded, without any apparent embarrassment, on Tuesday, when Than Shwe, a leader who has imprisoned the world’s best-known icon of non-violent political resistance and who four Governments now recommend be investigated for possible war crimes, received a bust of Mahatma Gandhi from the Indian Government.
However it is unlikely that India’s leaders were rattled by pro-democracy protests marking Than Shwe’s visit, or by the American exhortations that New Delhi put pressure on the Burmese ruler to ensure a free and fair election or work toward national reconciliation in Burma. Growing mutual links – in the context of India’s growing regional clout, desire to improve regional trade links and counter China – mean that, as K Yhome put it, “it is unlikely both countries would want to rock their hard-earned relationship in the near future”.Show